Aaron gives Lydia a disbelieving stare as they sit around a small campfire.

Photo: Jace Downs/AMC

If I told you the best part of tonight’s episode of The Walking Dead was a doorknob, would you believe me? Because it’s true, but that sounds like a bigger knock against “Variant” than I mean it to be. It was a pretty cool doorknob.

Image for article titled More Than a Decade Later, The Walking Dead Changes the Game

While still happy to take its sweet time strolling to the series finaletonight’s episode picks up a little bit compared to last week’s “New Deal,” but only when it’s outside of the Commonwealth, focusing on Aaron, Lydia, Jerry, and Elijah’s trip to bring supplies to and check on Oceanside. But since that’s fun, let’s go ahead and get the Commonwealth stuff out of the way.

Really, all you need to know is that Pam wants another scapegoat for last week’s debacle where Eugene played a secret recording of Kingsley St. Buffingsworth talking about how stupid non-rich people are, Hornsby’s goons created a bunch of zombies inside the Commonwealth, and Kingsley ended up getting eaten. Pam knows both Max and Eugene were responsible for the tape, but she’s content to let Eugene take the fall for all of it to Mercer’s relief, rather than have his sister executed for treason. As searches are conducted and all the Alexandrians and Hilltoppers are rounded up and questioned, Eugene hides in Gabriel’s church and Max eventually gets caught.

Image for article titled More Than a Decade Later, The Walking Dead Changes the Game

Photo: Jace Downs/AMC

Eugene, of course, finally finds a little courage to protect his lady love by turning himself in and confessing he did it all and worked alone, but there are—and please try not to be surprised by this—a few confusing scenes along the way, mostly involving Pam, who seems to have become as much as a weirdo as the last Governor to appear on the series. Whether she’s talking to Sebastian’s corpse or visiting Hornsby and caressing his head (which seems incredibly arousing to him, and as a result upsetting to me), Pam is several levels more sinister than she’s ever seemed before, which should feel like a reveal but instead feels like a retcon.

For instance, Pam somehow knows Hornsby’s responsible for letting the zombies loose in the Commonwealth and indirectly getting Sebastian killed. She wants Max to sign a confession that she stopped taking her depression medication and was thus led astray by Eugene and the other newcomers. She brings Sebastian’s zombie, a knife, and the warm corpse of Hornsby’s chief goon into Hornsby’s cell and tells him to feed her son. I assume, with her son dead, her reputation ruined by Connie’s evidence-free “newspaper” article and the recording, and Eugene ready to confess, she’s going to try to capture and/or kill all the Alexandrians just for something evil to do.

Image for article titled More Than a Decade Later, The Walking Dead Changes the Game

Photo: Jace Downs/AMC

While the Commonwealth remains the A-storyline, it’s far less interesting than Aaron and his gang’s attempted journey to Oceanside. After running across a (single file?) line of zombies blocking the road, Aaron makes the dumb decision to take the supplies-laden wagon off-road where it immediately gets stuck. Then it runs over Jerry’s foot and makes his knee bleed. They have to hole up at a completely undiscovered Renaissance festival locale. It’s great!

Although they’ve triple-checked all the security, that night, Aaron and Lydia are shocked to discover somehow zombies have entered the Renfest. Indeed, there are a lot of zombies, forcing the foursome to hole up in the castle, where… there’s a doorknob. And when the zombies mass outside, that doorknob begins to turn, making the group relocate to the roof. “Whisperers!” Aaron curses, quite reasonably.

Neither Aaron nor the hobbled Jerry is particularly surprised to find a “zombie” crawling onto the roof to get them, or grabbing a rock to bash Jerry’s brains in. But it does make Aaron so mad he starts punching the Whisperer in the head with his fist before ripping their mask off—only to find a bloody skull underneath. It wasn’t a Whisperer at all. It was a zombie—a zombie that remembered how to open doorknobs, climb, and use tools.

Image for article titled More Than a Decade Later, The Walking Dead Changes the Game

Photo: Jace Downs/AMC

If you’ve paid attention to The Walking Dead franchise these past few years—although goodness only knows why you would have—you are probably aware that it’s been planting seeds about “variant” zombies, zombies who are smarter and thus more dangerous than the average shambling corpse. It’s possible you knew what was coming, like me, which is kind of a shame as I bet it would have been a very fun reveal. But even knowing it was coming didn’t diminish my enjoyment of seeing The Walking Dead introduce an actual game-changer.

Of course, it is bizarre and more than a little tragic that TWD saved this extremely interesting development for episode 172 of 177, technically the last 0.028 percent of the TV series, when it could have made the show significantly more interesting much, much sooner. And sure, it isn’t nearly as exciting as the introduction of the Whisperers, when an apparent zombie agilely dodged Jesus’ attacks out of nowhere, but we know this development is going to have much deeper ramifications on future Walking Dead series, or at least the Europe-based Daryl Dixon. Will it have future ramifications on the few remaining episodes of TWD proper? I certainly hope so, but I’m pessimistic enough to expect that this is the only tease we’re getting, and we’ll have to stay tuned to the spin-offs for more.

This is not something I’m super-enthused by. Because although I was genuinely excited by a zombie turning a doorknob tonight, believe me, I’m well aware that my relationship with this show has reached a point where a doorknob is the most exciting thing The Walking Dead can think to give me.

Image for article titled More Than a Decade Later, The Walking Dead Changes the Game

Photo: Jace Downs/AMC

Assorted Musings:

  • About 90 percent of the episode stills were of Eugene in church, so enjoy this photo of Kingsley getting turned into a Lunchable from last week.
  • Turns out Jerry’s a samurai? It ruled, but it is massively aggravating that TWD saved this delicious morsel when we could have been watching him slice his way through the apocalypse since he first appeared back in season seven.
  • Princess has a good scene where she talks to Mercer about the importance of not accepting the best part of a bad situation that would have probably been more impactful if Princess had more screentime this season.
  • “We don’t have to disappoint each other anymore” is a pretty devastating line delivered from Pam to her terrible son’s corpse.
  • Eugene trying to threaten Daryl and then putting up his dukes was somewhat amusing.
  • I am also quite upset that TWD could have set part of this series at a Renfest at any time but didn’t choose to do so until now. Samurai King Jerry at the Renaissance Festival! Where is that spinoff?!

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